The Greatest Generation

Although most of us think of the Memorial Day weekend as an occasion that kicks the summer season into high gear, it is most importantly a solemn remembrance of those who served and gave their lives for their country.

This weekend, as I heard the roar of the Rolling Thunder bike riders rumble through the city, and caught a glimpse of the Memorial Day parade on TV, I thought of the men from my own family who have served.

It was a story that I heard on NPR this weekend that immediately brought my paternal grandfather to the forefront of my mind.  I listened as the woman, who had to have been my grandmother’s age, discussed her desire to serve her country during WWII and that desire led her to join the American Red Cross.  The woman’s cracked and fragile voice came through the radio and recalled the patriotism she felt in being able to be there, as the soldiers came off the front line, to provide coffee, cigarettes, and other basic comforts.  She said something to the affect that young soldiers, so far away from the home front really appreciated anything that reminded them of home – a smile, a kind face, nurturing etc.  It’s funny how certain soldiers got different reminders.  Throughout my life I recall my grandfather telling his American Red Cross story.  He served in the Pacific theater during WWII, I believe it was in Papau New Guinea.  He remembered being far away from home, in the depths of the jungle, seeing native people – the likes of which he’d never dreamed existed (I’ve seen some of the pictures).  His company stopped at an outpost, walked to the Red Cross table and they were told that colored soldiers would not be served coffee or cigarettes.

From the time I can recall, as a young child, into adult hood, I remember my grandfather telling that story so clearly.  It was something that he needed to share and it would come up every now and then.  If the Red Cross called the house and solicited him, he would tell them that story.  If an ad for the Red Cross came on TV he would repeat the story to us.  It was a searing rejection, that he’d certainly received  stateside, but to be in Papau New Guinea, a million miles from Newport News Virginia, serving his country, it was an injustice that he could never forget and he wouldn’t let us forget it either.

My Grandpa as a young enlisted man

My Grandpa visiting the WWII memorial

I think that my Grandfather shared that story throughout his life so that we would never forget the injustices that black soldiers encountered during that time and to let us know that one can persevere in spite of their circumstances.  My grandfather would make it safely home from the war, remain proud of his service, in spite of any injustice, go on to marry my grandmother and raise a generation of Ricks’s who would go out into this world and remember his legacy.  One of those Ricks’s he would proudly watch follow in his footsteps, illustrated in the photo below where you can see my grandfather pinning my father during his promotion ceremony in 1975.

My maternal grandfather also served his country as a member of the Army Air Force.  He was a Master Sergeant stationed in South Carolina with the 113th base unit, squadrant C.  He would go on to marry my grandmother, raise two children, one of them a son who would serve his country in Vietnam.  Neither my maternal grandfather nor my uncle ever had much to say about their time served but I know that their experience helped shape them into the strong men that they would become.

One of the most frightening things to me is history’s depiction of blacks and their service during WWII.  I watched Saving Private Ryan, and in the scene where the soldiers stormed the beach at Normandy I saw no black faces.  I also don’t recall seeing blacks depicted in the movie as the company traveled throughout Europe.  I don’t want history to forget the young black men that gave so much during a time when they couldn’t even receive service at a Woolworth’s lunch counter.  They showed up, they were there.

I am in awe of the members of my family that have served their country.  I am even more in awe that they served during a time that their country did not serve them – that is especially true for my grandfathers…members of the greatest generation.

Each and every day I pray for the type of strength that they had to have in order to persevere through tough times.  As my ole man often says – tough times don’t last, but tough people do.

Thank you to all who have answered the call to serve.



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